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Why powerful sports narratives move more than any Hollywood film

There’s a reason why sports are popular all over the world and why millions of fans spend time, money, and emotional energy watching sports. As well as drama, excitement and human interest, sports narratives have wonderful uncertainty.

Even the most mundane ball game or meaningless football encounter can turn into an epic struggle that captures the imagination of fans. In many ways, sports narratives have everything that can be found in the movies and more besides.

Here are four occasions when sports narratives outshone Hollywood:

Muhammad Ali, 1974

When Muhammad Ali took on George Foreman in October 1974, Foreman was the big favorite. Ali, once the darling of US boxing, had been stripped of his titles in 1967 following his refusal to fight in Vietnam. For seven years, he battled to regain his world heavyweight crown.

He was finally given a shot, but at the age of 32, few gave him a chance against the 25-year-old Foreman, who combined immense physical presence with incredible punching power.

The fight, dubbed ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’, was packed with drama. After taking the initiative in the first round, Ali switched tactics, going on the defensive, allowing Foreman to pepper his body with punches, and even goading the younger man to punch him harder.

By the seventh round, Foreman was visibly tiring, but he still had that famed punching power and finally managed to catch Ali on the jaw. Instead of crumbling, Ali taunted him again, saying: “That all you got, George?” Foreman was a beaten man.

The fight was stopped in the eighth round and Muhammad Ali had proved his critics wrong and written his name into the sport’s history as one of the all-time greats.

It is worth mentioning that whilst Muhammad Ali might be the greatest boxer of all time, Floyd Mayweather Jr. is the wealthiest. During his career Mayweather’s popularity with audiences guaranteed him high payouts and top billing at the biggest fights in the best venues.

Mayweather has used some of his staggering $560 million net worth to become a serious gambler, often placing large bets on football games. Some of his bets have been so big that they have had to be divided between different sportsbooks such as Unibet.

While his recent exhibition match against YouTuber Logan Paul would probably have deeply disappointed Ali and Foreman, Mayweather remains an impressive figure in the history of boxing.

Green Bay Packers, 1967

The 1967 NFC Championship game was one of the greatest NFL sports narratives of all time. Known as the Ice Bowl, it was played in brutally cold conditions at Lambeau Field between two fierce rivals: the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys.

The Cowboys were on the rise as an NFL franchise, while the Packers were bidding to become the first team to win three consecutive championships in the modern era.

The Packers raced into a 14-0 lead, but the Cowboys fought back, benefitting from two fumbles to make it 14-10 at halftime. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Dan Reeves scored for the Cowboys off a 50-yard half-back option pass.

Green Bay fought back and earned a field goal to tie the game, but the kick was no good. With time running out, Green Bay embarked on one last drive and quarterback Bart Starr ran the ball into the end zone with 13 seconds on the clock to give the Packers a famous win.

Ian Botham and England, 1981

Two games into the 1981 Ashes series between England and Australia, England was trailing 1-0 and had just seen their captain and best player, Ian Botham, resign his position.

Botham was the most exciting talent to emerge in English cricket in decades, a fearless batter and formidable bowler, with a hunger for action and an astonishing will to win.

His time as captain, however, had been miserable. He had been hounded remorselessly by the press, and his own form with bat and ball had fallen away, to the point where it was uncertain if he would play in the third game in Leeds. 

He did play, after all, but had little impact on the first three days as the game appeared to be going the way of the previous two. Australia dominated and by the time Botham came out to bat on day four, England was all but beaten.

It seemed unlikely that Australia would even have to bat again. However, freed from the shackles of captaincy, Botham unleashed a ferocious onslaught, crashing 149 runs to give England a narrow lead. On a dramatic final day, they clinched the game. Botham the hero was back.

Leicester City, 2016

The English Premier League is one of the richest sports tournaments in the world. Not surprisingly, it is almost always won by one of the big-name teams, who can spend hundreds of millions of pounds on player wages. No team outside the Big Four had won it in the big-money era.

Enter Leicester City. The medium-sized club from the unfashionable East Midlands had very little history or money behind them. In the 2014/15 season, they had been in danger of relegation, but in 2015/16, they defied the odds.

They were rated a 5000/1 chance to win the Premier League at the start of the season, but guided by veteran coach Claudio Ranieri and powered by the goals of former amateur player Jamie Vardy, they shocked the football world by winning the title by 10 points, making history in the process.